Fathur Rohman Al-Ghozi, a reputed leader of Southeast Asian terror group Jemaah Islamiyah, and the other two men escaped from police intelligence custody, national Police Chief Hermogenes Ebdane said.
The escape took place before dawn from the heavily secured command building at Camp Crame, the national police headquarters in Manila. Ebdane said three policemen guarding the three were being investigated, and President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ordered them sacked immediately.
The escape was a serious blow to Philippines efforts to battle terrorism and was particularly embarrassing because Australian Prime Minister John Howard was in Manila to provide counterterrorism assistance.
Police chief Supt. Jesus Verzosa, who heads the national police intelligence group which had custody of Al-Ghozi, has offered to resign, according to Ebdane, who did not say if he had accepted.
Ebdane identified the other escapees as Abdul Edris and Merang Abante. Abante, a senior member of the Abu Sayyaf group, was captured in January. He carried a $18,800 bounty on his head.
"Special teams are now conducting manhunt operations to track down these fugitives," Ebdane said.
Police say Al-Ghozi has confessed involvement in the five Dec. 30, 2000, bombings in Manila. His confessions have been used to file charges against alleged co-conspirators, including Saifullah Yunos, who pleaded guilty to helping plan the attacks.
Al-Ghozi was sentenced to 10-12 years in prison after pleading guilty on a separate charge of explosives possession. He led Philippine police to a ton of TNT that officials say was intended for planned attacks in Singapore on Western targets, including the U.S. Embassy.
Prosecutors say Al-Ghozi and Yunos, who claims to be a sub-commander of the Philippine separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front, have described how two other men financed the purchase of about 155 pounds of explosives used in the Manila bombings.
Yunos allegedly prepared the bombs' wiring while Al-Ghozi reportedly admitted preparing the switch on the alarm-clock triggers and packing the explosives, the prosecutors said.
Anti-terrorism officials across Southeast Asia say Jemaah Islamiyah aims to establish a Muslim extremist stronghold in the region and blame the group for last year's Bali bombings that killed 202 people.
Many of the 34 suspects arrested over the blasts at two nightclubs have admitted to being members of the group — including one who fought alongside Osama bin Laden.
Jemaah Islamiyah has been accused of planning a series of other attacks on Western targets across the region, including Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines. More than 100 suspected members have been detained in Southeast Asia. The group's alleged spiritual leader, Abu Bakar Bashir, is on trial in Jakarta on treason charges and over a string of church bombings on Christmas Eve 2000.
The group is also linked to a plot uncovered in December 2001 to bomb the U.S. and Israeli embassies and British and Australian diplomatic buildings in Singapore.
The State Department estimates its operational strength at 5,000 fighters.